March 30, 2010

Part of the Documentary Competition at RiverRun International Film Festival, His & Hers is an Irish film that weaves together snippets of interviews with Irish women, mainly about the men in their lives.  The interviews start with the youngest subjects and work chronologically to the oldest of those interviewed, and the result is interesting if not consistently engaging in a conventional narrative sense.  I recommend the film for doc lovers, however, and do appreciate its unusual structure.

But the structure — interviewing girls and women in their homes and weaving bits of the interviews together — creates a thematic issue for me.  The women are confined to the domestic sphere and frame their own lives through comments about their fathers, brothers, boyfriends, fiances, husbands, and sons, all of which means their lives are defined (in this film) by the men in them.

Screenings April 16, 17, 18, and 23 at RiverRun.  See the website (http://www.riverrunfilm.com) for details.


UPDATE: Reynolda FF and RiverRun International FF

March 28, 2010

The Reynolda Film Festival was terrific!  I really liked The Messenger (which I had been interested in seeing for some time) and thought Spike Lee inspired the students in the crowd Friday night.  The Wake Forest students who worked on the festival were extremely professional and put on a great program.

Now it’s time to shift gears and get ready for RiverRun International Film Festival, which runs April 15 – 25.  I have a stack of screener DVDs with films programmed for the festival sitting on my table and will start watching and making some recommendations this week!

Oh – I have meant to write a line or two about Alice in Wonderland but never gotten around to it.  I enjoyed the look of the film, as I usually do with Tim Burton’s work, and I thought this story worked a bit better than it does in some of his other films.  If Burton could construct a narrative that is as powerful as his visuals, that would be a film I could elevate to my top tier.


March 22, 2010

WHEN:            Friday, March 26, 2010

WHERE:          Wait Chapel on the Wake Forest University Campus

TICKETS:       Free to WFU students, faculty, and staff and $5 for others

DETAILS:        http://www.reynoldafilmfestival.com/Events_All.html

It’s no secret that I watch a lot of media, especially films.  I watch them.  I think about them many times each day.  I write about them, talk about them, and make them.  While I’m not as single-minded as many people who are consumed by one thing, I always return to the story with a passion that is unwavering if not singular. I think a big element that sustains my passion for moving images is that I see films as crucially important for our culture.  Films are tools for exploring our humanity, for telling us who we are and contextualizing what that means.  Some people use this tool to expand our awareness and ask probing questions that resonate for years, and I think one of those is filmmaker Spike Lee.

For me, all of Lee’s films are interesting, and a few of them are brilliant, which is more than I can say about most popular filmmakers.  I remember watching She’s Gotta Have It in the late 1980s and marveling at the fresh perspective represented in the film.  I couldn’t wait to see something else by the young director Spike Lee, and the next film of his that I saw – the first at the cinema – was Do The Right Thing in 1989.  This remains my favorite of Spike Lee’s movies.  It seems as original and compelling to me today as it did then.  Do The Right Thing is one of the few films that I have included in the film theory and criticism class every semester I have taught the course, and I think this film is an unqualified success on every level.  I love other films by Spike Lee – especially the documentary Four Little Girls, the epic biographical film Malcolm X, and the small but riveting Get On The Bus. I love ideas and sequences from others, but if Spike Lee had only made those four films, he would be a great filmmaker in my opinion.

Are some of his films flawed?  Sure.  The musical numbers didn’t work for me at the time in School Daze – of course, even as I say this I’m thinking that I should watch it again and see if my opinion has changed on that point.  I felt that the subplot in Jungle Fever featuring Halle Berry and Samuel L. Jackson undercut the film a bit, that Mo’ Better Blues and Crooklyn were a tad too nostalgic, and that He Got Game needed a little more narrative focus.  So what?  These are quibbles.  I liked Clockers, was surprised with Lee’s choice to direct Summer of Sam, and enjoyed the fact that the commercially successful Inside Man examined race and social class at the interstices of a compelling heist film instead of putting those issues front and center as viewers had come to expect from a Spike Lee Joint.

So, if some of Lee’s films are flawed, I say so what.  If you want to call them his lesser films and call Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X and Four Little Girls masterworks, that’s okay with me.  I would also add Get on the Bus to that list because I’m just crazy about that little film and think it has been overlooked.  But, let’s return to what might be called the lesser works for a moment.  I maintain that all of Spike Lee’s films are far more interesting to watch and more thought-provoking than those of the vast majority of filmmakers.  He takes chances and dares to be different while developing a distinctive vision, which is always a risk, but a risk that offers the opportunity to achieve something great.

Friday night at seven o’clock, Spike Lee will address our community at Wait Chapel on the Wake Forest University campus as part of the Reynolda Film Festival.  Students organize and operate this festival from start to finish.  I had nothing to do with the selection of Spike Lee as featured speaker for the festival with a talk entitled “Spike Lee:  Following Your Dreams,” but I couldn’t be happier or prouder that a group of students have recognized the importance of bringing him to campus to challenge our preconceptions and help us think about important questions in new ways.  I’ll be there early to claim my seat in Wait Chapel so I can listen and learn.


March 14, 2010


The new sitcom Sons of Tucson (FOX, Sundays 9:30 p.m.)  carries the tagline, “Fake Dad.  Real Trouble.”  Three boys need someone to play their dad and register them for school because their actual father is a banker in prison over financial malfeasance.  The brothers don’t want to go into foster care and hire a slacker living in his car to play their father.  The premise is more interesting than the pilot, and I’m not sure the premise is all that interesting.


March 14, 2010

Baseball season is upon us, so it seems fitting to note that NBC has finally brought us a prospect instead of a suspect.

Parenthood (Tuesdays at 10 p.m. – why program it opposite The Good Wife, which is still running strong?) has a good cast, a conventional but well-crafted set of storylines, and a family drama that looks like it could turn out to be entertaining and possibly engaging.

We’ll wait and see…


March 14, 2010

Here are two movies I’ve waited to see and am glad I’ve seen – one I enjoyed watching and another I appreciated – but neither one left me as satisfied as I had hoped.

The Last Station has a delightful cast.  Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren play Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sophia during the last weeks of his life.  James McAvoy plays Tolstoy’s private secretary and Paul Giamatti his loyal follower.

The film, which is based on a novel, seems more like an adaptation of a play but without the historical notes.  Basically, Mirren and Giamatti are struggling over the publication rights to Tolstoy’s work.  Mirren, his wife of 48 years, wants the income from the books to support her family.  Giamatti, as Vladimir Chertkov, wants the books to be in the public domain so that “the people” will always have access to them.

Chertkov is a devoted Tolstoyan, part of a group following the philosophical teachings of Tolstoy, which are based largely on the Beatitudes.  All of this is happening shortly before the Russian Revolution.  Viewers who bring in some of the literary and historical context will appreciate the film more than others.  Everyone will appreciate Plummer and Mirren, who were both nominated for Oscars for these performances.

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke won the top prize at Cannes in 2009 with The White Ribbon, a story about evil lurking just beneath the bucolic beauty of a small, German village shortly before the beginning of World War I.

The stark and stunning black and white cinematography perfectly complements this story where most people seem evil or willing to overlook evil or even be complicit in it to maintain the status quo in the community.

Our narrator, thinking back on the events of the village leading up to the War, is removed from both of those categories and cannot fathom what is really going on behind closed doors in the village.  The young girl he courts seems equally guileless, and it is probably a good thing that she doesn’t stay in this village very long.

There are a few sequences in the film that I appreciate madly.  The central idea is compelling:  the sins of adults – cruelty, bullying, sexual abuse, physical abuse, etc. – will be visited on generations to come in an unbroken cycle in this rigid patriarchy with the Baron, the steward, and the pastor at the top of the community hierarchy.

There are times, however, when the pacing of the film seems a little off.  It would benefit from trimming 20-25 minutes from the runtime.  And, I think it would benefit from a bit more context.  Is the idea that all villages are like this one under the surface?  Is this the grand explanation for how the Nazis gained active participation and complicity in Germany and Austria?  Or, is Eichwald an aberration among German villages?

I don’t expect easy answers or necessarily any answers because ambiguity adds some richness and reality to films, but The White Ribbon offers so much to think about and so much to appreciate in terms of the visuals and the performances that the feeling it is missing something is more troubling for me than with lesser films.

Of course, the problem could reside with me instead of with the film.  Haneke’s films focus on the darker sides of human nature, and these are places that I know exist and occasionally visit but where I don’t want to dwell.


March 11, 2010

Someone recently asked me a question that went something like this:  “I was surprised by the awards for The Hurt Locker, which I thought was a very good film but not award-winning compared to Avatar.  Maybe you can educate me on the finer points of directing so that I can see why Kathryn Bigelow’s work is more worthy than the five years of incredible work that James Cameron put in on a film that is one of the most amazing technical accomplishments in film I have ever seen.  I realize that “technology” doesn’t mean everything, but the fact that Cameron could even pull something like this together and make a film that almost defies belief gives it a nod above The Hurt Locker for me.”

That’s a lot to address.

Actually, I was a little late to the Oscar party because I was in London during much of the build-up and actual telecast so missed the hoopla but didn’t really miss it if you know what I mean.  The excessive coverage seems like a bit of overkill in the run up to the ceremony.

This is the first year I’ve been asked to pick likely winners publicly (by the Winston-Salem Journal http://www2.journalnow.com/content/2010/mar/04/032110/top-ten/), and I actually got the major categories right.  I went strictly with my instincts about what would win, and this year it was not as close a call to me as it is many years.  Still, since my track record selecting winners is spotty at best, I was surprised that there wasn’t at least one unsuspected  winner called to the stage to accept an Oscar.

If I were a member of the Academy, I would have voted for the winners except the Sandra Bullock role.  Although I appreciated several performances in the category and could make a case for several above Bullock, I didn’t feel strongly about one particular performance nominated for Best Actress this year.

But, back to the central question to consider why The Hurt Locker beat Avatar for the Best Picture statuette.  Well, I will concede that  Avatar is an amazing technical achievement (but so was Star Wars Episode I:  The Phantom Menace — and remember the annoying Jar Jar Binks?).  The technical accomplishments and visual style do not mean that it is a film voters believe will have lasting value aside from the technical leap forward.

You might ask if that leap forward isn’t enough, but it would be hard to choose a film that has spawned so many jokes about its simplistic and predictable narrative.  Many people have called it Dances with Wolves in space (a charge that resonates with me), but my son reminded me that the plot is exactly like an animated film he saw as a child, Ferngully (and I confess that I only vaguely remember that one).

The dialogue is weak and frequently cheesy, many of the characters come across as stock composites or caricatures, and that undermines the originality of the film and its potential for gravitas.  The Academy thinks it likes originality, but it really likes gravitas (or, at least, perceived gravitas).

Besides, Jim Cameron has ticked a lot of people off, and it’s those people in the film community who are casting votes!

As for The Hurt Locker, it was one of my two favorite films of the year, so I have little to complain about with the winner this year.  I think the Academy was also motivated to honor a woman director because the industry is so male-dominated.  Not surprising (or is it?) that the woman to break this particular glass ceiling directs testosterone-driven films.

Honestly, I usually guess wrong when picking the winners and think the Academy often overlooks the best (likely to have lasting value) films in favor of more popular fare.  On the other hand, I think selecting ten nominees for Best Picture turned out to be a good move overall.  I liked several of the nominated films very much and only wish that Bright Star had knocked out one of the others to claim a nomination of its own.  Of the nominated films, however, I think the best film won.

My second choice would have been either Precious:  Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire or An Education, but I certainly would have chosen Avatar over Inglourious Basterds!